This article appeared in the November 2016 issue of the Georgia's Cities newspaper.
When I took office in 2011, Georgia was in the midst of a criminal justice crisis. Our prison population had doubled in the past two decades to 56,000. Our incarceration budget had doubled to $1 billion per year and our recidivism rate was more than 30 percent, meaning that one in three released offenders would be back behind bars within three years.
While it is important that our criminal justice system punish those who have harmed the lives and property of our citizens, it should also seek to change the direction of their lives so that they will not repeat their criminal conduct upon release.
To that end, a panel of experts was tasked with performing an exhaustive review of our current system, identifying key areas of focus and providing recommendations for reforms. Their work resulted in bipartisan legislation that is paying dividends. Through these efforts, we’ve avoided the need for 5,000 additional prison beds over five years and saved taxpayers at least $264 million.
At the recent Bipartisan Summit on Criminal Justice Reform, I had the opportunity to share these results, particularly in regards to our accountability courts, juvenile justice system and prisoner re-entry initiatives.
In Georgia, we have taken monumental steps in recent years to give new beginnings to nonviolent offenders whose underlying issues are addiction or mental illness. Instead of saddling taxpayers with the cost of a prison sentence, instead of branding the offender with the stigma of incarceration, these individuals are getting the treatment they need; they are keeping jobs; and they are keeping families together.
The Atlanta Journal-Constitution
last year reported that prison sentences imposed on African-American offenders have dropped by 20 percent and links this “unmistakable” downward trend to the state’s boost in accountability courts funding.
“Since 2007 alone, more than three dozen [accountability] courts have opened their doors across Georgia,” the AJC reported. “In the first quarter of 2014, more than 4,100 offenders were enrolled in the state’s 105 accountability courts, and many of these participants would likely be in prison without this alternative.”
Juvenile Justice Reforms
In 2013, Georgia was spending $91,000 on each incarcerated juvenile per year and still seeing a 65 percent recidivism rate.
These unique challenges led to reforms including assessment tools designed to help judges determine the risk levels of juvenile offenders; providing judges with greater discretion in sentencing juveniles; and expanding community-based options across the state, an objective pursued in part through the creation of an incentive grant program.
While these changes have only been in place a little over a year, the state has made significant progress, particularly with its incentive grant program. For example, participating counties have seen felony commitments and placements in short-term programs drop more than 62 percent over a nine-month period. This has resulted in the closure of two detention centers.
Re-entry is the critical intersection between an offender’s incarceration and return to life in the free world. By removing barriers to employment, housing and education for rehabilitated offenders, a larger number of returning citizens are able to rejoin the workforce and support their families.
Approximately 70 percent of Georgia’s inmates don’t have a high school diploma. If their lack of an education is not addressed during their incarceration, when they re-enter society they have a felony on their record but no job skills on their résumé. An ex-con with no hope of gainful employment is a danger to everyone. This is why we’re working to help get these individuals into a job. Our prisons have always been schools. In the past, the inmates have learned how to become better criminals. Now they are taking steps to earn diplomas and gain job skills that will lead to employment after they serve their sentences.
Further, inmates with felonies applying to work for the state no longer have to check a box on their job applications that discloses their criminal histories. By “banning the box” ex-offenders are no longer disqualified from being considered for a job from the outset.
Our message to those in our prison system and to their families is this: If you pay your dues to society, if you take advantage of the opportunities to better yourself, if you discipline yourself so that you can regain your freedom and live by the rules of society, you will be given the chance to reclaim your life. I intend for Georgia to continue leading the nation with meaningful justice reform.